Do your students choose the coursebooks they’ll use?


July 12, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

This text was originally a comment I left on a post over the excellent – with some minor tweaks now that I reread it.

I long to see the day that the normal practice becomes one that teachers and students together take a look at a bunch of books and decide together which one, or ones, they will adopt (if any). Then do the same thing again when they reach the next level or something. (no matter how good a series is, following the same format from elementary to upper-intermediate is deadly boring)

We used to choose books with students in a school I worked with in Sao Paulo for many years. The first two or three lessons would be given using different coursebooks: the teacher and the students would go over the contents page, see if they liked the topics, the images, the feel of the material, if it would provide the right levels of challenge and motivation, etc, and try in practice a couple of pages off Unit 1.

Then the DOS would also call the students, get some feedback, ask them which coursebook they preferred and a course plan would be laid out.

Sounds great, though it was bloody difficult to manage.

The main constraint though was that since we depended on publishers’ courtesy copies to give to teachers, sometimes we couldn’t adopt a series we wanted because one or the other publisher wouldn’t give us free copies. And that is because, of course, we had a democratic way to select materials which meant we didn’t sell heaps of one single title – because, of course, we were not ‘forcing’ students to buy them.

While my account has not much to do with the original eltjam post, it does show that it is important to really see who the buyer is, who makes the decisions, and who influences them. In most situations students are certainly not the ones making the decisions. In fact, if they could really choose, I suspect the market would have a different configuration.

Moreover, on the topic eltjam raises – whether to focus on ELT brands or ELT authors – most students I’ve had in ten years could barely tell you on spot, without looking, the name of the coursebooks they were using. Most teachers I know have no idea who authored the coursebooks they use.



I know, I know! There are market researches, focus groups, author’s visits and classroom observations, they talk to teachers and students, etc, etc. – Great, but that is to design the product, isn’t it? So, in theory, there can be great, fantastic coursebooks. However, the point I raise is that of end-users’ choice.

unfair conclusion:

If a course/classroom is said to be learner-centred or that it fosters (incredibly) lots of learner autonomy, etc, but its students are not allowed to participate in decisions regarding materials selection, especially coursebook selection, then IT IS NOT LEARNED-CENTRED !! : ) (NB don’t take this statement seriously)


14 thoughts on “Do your students choose the coursebooks they’ll use?

  1. Damian says:

    I really like the sound of the experience you describe in Sao Paulo, sitting down with students and looking at different material, choosing together. Never had that opportunity myself and it sounds like a bit of groundwork could go a long way over the rest of the course. Good point about different levels, too, I’ve always found that different coursebooks (even different approaches) work better at different levels.

    I wonder if there’d be any way of making something like this work in schools which have continuous enrollment though? (that’s a genuine question!)

    • Hi Damian

      Where I worked in London (continuous enrollment), there were about five different series being used, but students didn’t make any choices; the DOS usually did. However, some teachers could say which series they preferred to use if it was the beginning of a new book/level. It’s not very practical in this context to allow much student input on choice of materials since a very small number will actually go over the whole book. Teachers there had all flexibility to adapt and supplement coursebook units though. And one or two teachers, the very Dogme ones, were also allowed not to follow any coursebook, I think.

      • Damian says:

        Yes, that sounds like the situation where I used to work in London, too. One thing the DOS did try to ensure was that different classes at the same level used different books, so at least there was a bit of choice that way. It did usually mean that some teachers got stuck with the same books for a long time though.

  2. mikecorea says:

    Interesting, thoughtful and thought provoking post as usual, Willy. One thing came to mind as I was reading it (ignoring the tricky term learner-centered). What if students feel that choosing the book is the domain of the school and the teacher and prefer to grant this choice to them. What if students are choosing to attend classes at a particular school on the basis of some expectation of expertise on the part of the teacher/admin?

    I think you make and raise some interesting points. I also suspect that that market would have a very different configuration if students were to choose coursebooks. (more gapfills? More listenings with more native speakers doing less authentic talking for inauthentic tasks? Just some thoughts that come to mind.) I do think it is very interesting how the end users don’t seem to have much choice. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. .

    • re: your what if questions.
      They are perfectly valid points; natural, expected, sensible. If I enrol in any course, I would expect informed decisions from teachers and admin; if their informed decision is that I am very important in making some of the many decisions, like choosing my own material from a pre-selected range they already scrutinised, then I would regard them even more highly.

      In the experience I described above, a few students did say ‘it doesn’t matter which book, you know better, you are the teacher’ – fine, there weren’t books we considered ‘bad’ in the options we’ve given the students. But in general, most students appreciated the attention we put in including them in this decision.

  3. I like the principle of democratic choice here, but I imagine a few considerations first:

    a) I suppose the choices you give them to choose from a limited to those the school and teachers like/are familiar with the most. Really, many of us know that some content from some text books is easier to work with than others. I’m guessing that some choice is better than no choice though.

    b) What do the students have to go by? Table of contents? It’s really only once working with a particular text that you figure out if it was an appropriate choice. Students often aren’t equipped with the experience to or want to make key decisions themselves. If I were starting a language class in Spanish, and was given the freedom to choose my own text, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. I have no exposure to Spanish coursebooks, nor do I want to spend the time to figure it out. Maybe an early coursebook-less lesson on what they value and what topics interest them would be helpful first.

    c) Even in the best of scenarios where all students are informed and have opinions, what are the chances they will all agree on one? Most likely a few will like the topics from this coursebook, another couple from another text, and so on. Who makes the final call? Seems back to the basic principle again that nothing alone works well and that sourcing from many places works best.

    • hi Tyson – these are all important things to consider. I can only speak from experience, and really this is not something I think can work across many contexts.
      Here are my comments:

      a) correct

      b) I said, they also tried out some pages of the first unit of the book in one lesson, then of another book in another lesson. And by the table of contents they would see for example, which topics attracted them among the ones each book offered and which grammar points they considered ‘new’ or ‘seen it a hundred times’. In the context I describe above, beginners didn’t really have much choice, or any, as far as I can remember. Nor there were many beginner students for us to worry about this issue.
      re: Spanish. I think you would really have a clue! You are a teacher, you would know whether you would enjoy a book with fictional characters doing random stuff and lots of gaps to fill, or one with authentic texts and more information gap type of activities. Wouldn’t you?

      c) In the context I experienced this, most groups were no bigger than 6 students, and they all worked in the same company. It was manageable. Whenever we had a big group, like 8! or 10! we (academic managers) made the decisions ourselves.

      • b) I suppose I would be able to judge activity types to a certain degree visually and the rest of the book visually. Still, I’d assume the school I register for would have teachers who knew how to supplement a coursebook unit and get us to give input. Perhaps I’m imagining best case here. πŸ™‚

  4. branka says:

    Hi Willy,
    At the end of this school year I brought three different course books to my students to choose one for their next school year (they will be 3rd year students from September). Beside course books I also offered them option of no course book at all (teaching unplugged), which was the option that I really was looking forward to, because it is something I am really eager to try, since I bring a lot of authentic materials to the classroom anyway. Unfortunately (for me) they chose a course book, but I am really happy that, for the first time, my students got the chance to choose the material they’ll be working with. Anyway, there is always a chance to bring my own material, when I, and my students, think that the lesson (text) is not interesting enough. As for “teaching unplugged” it will have to wait for some time.

    • Hi Branka,
      I think it’s great that you gave them the choice, included the one of no materials at all. Would you be able to say why they chose one option over the others? It would be really interesting to know what criteria they used. Also, how did they/you reach consensus?

      If you’re willing to try unplugging, I think you could choose some lessons/days to try it. It perhaps easier than suddenly unplugging the whole course. Although I really like the idea of teaching unplugged, it can be even more demanding for teachers, you know, to all the time come up with new stuff if they need, we know sometimes we get overworked and for better or worse going back to something familiar, like a coursebook, can be a momentary solution to cool off and carry on.

      • branka says:

        Hi again,
        Interesting question, and and the answer is even more interesting. I put the students into groups and gave each group one course book; then they exchanged. First criteria for them was – cover πŸ™‚ (“We like this cover best”). “Ok, let’s get serious”, I said, “go through the book, look at the texts, pictures, activities”. They asked questions. like, is there a workbook, are there any CDs. I had workbooks for two of the books, so I gave them to look into those too. One of the course books had a mini dictionary, and that was something they also liked. They even noticed that in one of the books lessons are nicely arranged, one lesson per page, and in the other they said that it seemed that it looked like it was somehow mixed up. They also paid attention to the titles of the texts, and liked the book that had the most interesting, up-to-date texts. They said “This is something we would like to read about”.
        As for me, all of the three course books are ok, because, as I said, when I come to a boring lesson, I change it, bring something else.
        And, yes, you are right, teaching unplugged would be much more work for teacher, which is not something I worry about, but, what I was thinking was whether I would prepare the course in advance (like a couple of months in advance), so I could give them the material, or would I prepare one class at a time. I thought maybe prepare some of the material during the summer, just to have something up my sleeve, and then go with the flow πŸ™‚

  5. hughdellar says:

    Hi Willy –
    An interesting post, but one which perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn I more or less totally disagree with! My main bones of contention:

    I think the idea that students should be fully involved in the selection of coursebooks to be used is part of a continuum of thought that’s come very much out of the 60s and a resistance to the notion of authority and a feeling that those who now find themselves in power (EFL teachers, in this particular instance) try to get round their sense of guilt by pretending not t be in power at all, and to instead be ‘facilitators’ or whatever, when really they’re being paid for their knowledge, their expertise, their know-how, their competence, their wisdom. Part of this must include being the best judge of materials. Coursebooks vary wildly from one to another and teachers need to find books that best represent and embody their own beliefs about how language – and the learning of language – actually works. Giving students what students think they want is a recipe for if not disaster, then at least endless bloody grammar exercises, and is basically an abnegation of the teacher’s responsibility. In what other so-called profession would the person paying for the acquisition of the skill be asked to choose the route that they best felt was suitable for them? Surely this is part of what students are paying for: you’re the expert, you’re the one who knows more about the materials out there than they do, you’re the one who has – or is supposed to have – an informed and principled view on the relationship between these different materials and so why waste students’ time with this when you could be using the materials you most believe in to teach the way you believe is best instead?

    As for the idea that you’re only ‘student centred’, whatever that tired old cliche now means, if you’re doing things your way . . . well, that’s a disservice to anyone who doesn’t do this and who chooses books themselves, or even who makes the best of whatever is forced upon them by their institution (and I’m certainly NOT suggesting that’s the way we should go either, by the way!) and do so in a way that involves the learners, keeps them interested, gives them plenty of space to use the new language to express their own realities, listens to them as they try to extend themselves and helps them say it better, etc. Are you really saying that’s they’re NOT ‘student-centred’ simply because their students didn’t choose the books? That’s a hell of a lot of teachers then that fail to meet that criteria!

    Finally, I think that to claim that “following the same format from elementary to upper-intermediate is deadly boring” simply shows a poverty of imagination. Even though it’s a book I hate and that is the antithesis of what I believe about the nature of language and its learning, I’d still like to think that it’s quite possible to work your way through five levels of English File and do so in a way that engaged and interested students and that got at lots of useful new language. This is surely just to do with how we approach our own teaching, not the nature of the materials per se. I also think that it makes way more sense for students to actually stick within a series, despite the fact I know it hardly ever happens, as they then get a comprehensive worldview and vision of language instilled in them. For learners, switching from one style of book to another is often a source of deep vexation and stress.

    There you go.

    What was supposed to have been my tuppence worth has turned into a rather larger deposit!
    Which must mean the original post did plenty to get the old grey mater ticking over!

    • Hi Hugh
      Thanks for commenting. I’m not surprised you disagree. And I do agree with many things you said. As part of the continuum you mention, it is hard, and perhaps unwise to stand still in one point or another, so whereas there will be circumstances in which student involvement in whichever decisions have to be made are possible, wanted, and practiced – for whatever reasons (I’ll get back to this later), there are many other circumstances in which the opposite is expected, or required. For good or ill, there are still many gaps in our general knowledge of what “absolutely” works in language learning and teaching, and I think any instance of what one thinks is good practice can be critically evaluated by others, and why not downright rejected; so I honestly don’t expect people to agree with what I said in the original post, and I admit most of it has no evidence of success.

      I am aware of the discourse you mention (60s, authority, facilitator, etc), and I would even add that somewhere in that continuum lies the ‘learner as consumer’ view (more on that later maybe). While there are those learners who expect all decisions to be made by experts, there are also those who have gone through many different courses and used many different books, haven’t learned as much as needed and are now looking for courses with high flexibility, and one which they can decide more how things are going to happen. This was the case in the experience I described above. On the one hand, there was the pedagogical argument that in a full-on learner-centred*, learners would also participate in the choice of materials** – there was even an example I strongly disagreed with which was a student who wanted to use Hilary Clinton’s biographic novel as the coursebook, but the teacher was not interested in reading that. On the other hand, there was the marketing argument, that given our students being who they were (and I can’t spend much time describing them here), it would be better if they were involved in the selection of learning materials.

      *learner-centred – I don’t like the term and have blogged about it before. It can mean anything, and it can be twisted to serve anyone’s purpose. So regarding my final comment of ‘it’s only learner-centred if…’, I was just doing that. My fault was I didn’t make it clear. In any case, I have said before: a) I think the ‘centre’ is where most decisions are made, and if anything is ____-centred (teacher/learner/admin/etc), the ____ is making the decisions; b) I think any teaching is teacher-centred to an extent – which is an obvious deduction from anyone who’s even been to a classroom.

      **the choice of materials – in the context I described, it was not anything goes. As I said, there were around five to seven books pre-selected by the school – like series they had available – then with each learner profile and needs analysis they would recommend two, sometimes three, to be tried out.

      In the end, I can’t say for sure what difference it would’ve made in student learning if the process had been different. But that is something every teacher faces at any rate.

      Finally, addressing the point of following the same format; I stick to my opinion, it’s boring. And that is it, it’s a personal opinion based on my own experience – it can’t be wrong. Now if you think it’s a poverty of imagination, oh well… I see you might have the recipe for the ‘right’ kind of imagination then. Nonetheless, you argue that it is possible to go over a whole series even if it’s English File – I agree. I didn’t say it was impossible, I said it was boring – for me. But if I can choose, I’d rather spend my poor imagination working on something other than fixing the flaws of the book I’m given to follow.

      You said: “For learners, switching from one style of book to another is often a source of deep vexation and stress”

      This is another point where our experiences differ. I would say:
      For learners, switching from one style of book to another is often a source of relief and motivation.

      Thanks again for the debate, and sorry it took me a while to reply. I had actually written a fairly long comment, like this one, but with different ideas, but my laptop crashed before I could send it.

      • hughdellar says:

        Hi again Willie –
        Thanks for such a lengthy and considered response.
        IMpressed you found time at all, so no worries on the delay.

        To start where you ended, as it’s the freshest in my mind, of course I have had students who’ve been relieved to move from one series of books to another, but I guess my concerns stem from a possibly more self-centred perspective. Partly, of course, as a writer, you love to imagine that students will use the whole series, not out of any financial imperative (though of course that never hurts), but simply because I know myself the degree to which language is recycled and pre-cycled across the series . . . and also how slow it is to alter / mould students’ attitudes to language. I do think that where you’re using books that differ from the mainstream dominant Headway / English File language = words + grammar model, though (and I’m certainly not claiming that ours are the only ones, to be clear) there can be real conflict both for students who’re coming from Headway / English File experiences and who then panic when the new books don’t resemble those in terms of the way they handle grammar . . . and at the same time, students who’ve had one or two levels of far more lexically oriented books, possibly taught to them by teachers with faith and belief in the material, often find it jarring to switch back to the mainstream as it represents a vision of language they’ve ceased believing in themselves! This is where the hassles develop, I guess.

        I know which approach I think works best, obviously, and I wouldn’t wish a full five-levels of either grammar-centred courses on anyone, but teachers should have the cojones to choose which books they feel most represents their own worldview – which presupposes of course that they should also have a coherent worldview with regard to language and its learning, as I said before.

        i hear you on the idea that ‘student as consumer’ lies along the spectrum I mentioned, but should also add that Jim Scrivener started receiving horses’ heads in the post after labelling me Thatcherite many years ago! :-))

        I suspect I’m nearer that pole that you would be, but feel that laying down guidelines and defining parameters is simply pat of our role, but doesn’t preclude a deep respect for students, an interest in their world, and a desire to get them engaging on a vitally human level with the input, or a desire to turn their own output into further input.

        As for the student-centred issue, yeah . . . it means whatever anyone seems to want it to mean these days. Missed the irony quotes there, so apologies.

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